You can either come up with a big idea that’s truly going to help communication practitioners be more effective, or you can use the formula that most communication keynoters use.
What’s the formula? First, take the best dozen anecdotes from your spotty career and dress them up to sound heroic. Then, repeat them in Toastmaster’s talks and chapter events until you actually believe, for instance, that you once walked into the CEO’s office and asked him whether he did or didn’t want you to tell him when he was full of b.s.
Now, plug those well-honed yarns into the Communication Keynote for Dummies Formula®, which involves saying two things realquickbacktoback: an insult, and a lie.
1. The insult: That members of the audience are worthless drudges doing meaningless work. For instance, you might tell them that the “formal communication” that they’re responsible to produce represents less than 10% of the information employees take in. This will have a powerful effect on an audience of sincere communicators who already doubt their effectiveness; now to their doubt you have added shame, and you have them right where you want them.
2. The lie: The drudges can become heroes, if only they will use their copious discretionary time and their unlimited power to transform the entire organization to conform to their superior instincts as communicators. For instance, one might tell an audience of communication managers that, in addition to juggling all their campaigns, events, vehicles and departmental issues, they ought to venture forth and change HR policies and procedures to eliminate the thousands of credibility-killing daily "say-do" gaps. And when they’re through with that, they ought to go knock some supervisors’ heads together until those unwashed bastards get on message too.
I know what you’re thinking: The audience won’t appreciate being insulted and will object to being lied to. Au contraire, some of them will love it! (Many grown-ups are looking for father- and mother-figures, and the more smug you are, the more comforted they will be by your authority.)
Others may respond less enthusiastically to your attack, but they won’t have the courage either to claim they don’t see themselves as Bartleby the Scrivener, or to admit it’s not their purview to close the organization’s “walk-talk disconnects.”
This leaves only a handful of punch-bowl turds to ever-so-politely suggest during the Q&A that you are a phony. Since you already know this—after all, as a consultant you’ll take any nickel anyone pays you, and you get most of those nickels in exchange for doing the tactical 10% that you deride—you accept it with a shrug and a smile and the hint of a wink and you say, “We have a difference of opinion.”
It’s that simple! Oh, sure, there are advanced techniques. I could describe the Keynote Cadence, teach you how to remind the audience of what losers they are by sprinkling in context-free anecdotes about great companies in utterly different industries, arm you with rhetorical canards like, “now, I know I’m going to be very unpopular when I say this” and show you how to introduce a communication “model” that’s at once simple enough to explain in on one PowerPoint slide but complex enough to require months and many thousands of dollars to understand fully and implement in your organization.
But basically, anybody can follow the CKDF®, which works today every bit as well as it ever did.
The question is, do these talks do anybody any good? They sure do! They get you in front of some hundreds of eager, ambitious communicators every year, talking to them like the voice of God. That leads to clients and clients pay you money and money pays the bills and when the bills get paid everyone’s happy.
Except for your audiences, who trudge away with less than the nothing they brought to your talk.
I also enjoy the CKFD accessory kit (sold separately) for advanced keynoters. It allows you to add The Revolutionary New Tool to your pitch. With that, your audience members are drudges who can become heroes using the latest social medium/measurement model/strategic approach or whatever you have cooked up. It’ got a quirky name or actonym and it’s transforming the communications industry right now, so communicators need to get on the bus or get left behind.
“You’ve never seen such a simple but effective solution to ramp up your comm ROI, have you? Of course, it is so new that we don’t actually have any proof it works – but our preliminary and largely fabricated analysis shows the potential. Phony? Well, I may be a phony or I may be a visionary. If two years from now it turns out my Revolutionary New Tool was on the money, do you want to be the one explaining to the CEO why you don’t have it? [Wink] Next question?”
Robert J Holland, ABC says
I pretty much agree with your points, David. As someone who’s been to plenty of conferences and seen this formula being used, I know you speak the truth.
But I’m curious: What would be a great (and different) keynote, in your opinion? What would you like to hear a keynoter say or see one do?
It’s easy and fun to call out the BS artists, but turn the tables and tell me what would cause you to say, “Now THAT was a great keynote!”
Oh, thank you, thank you for this post. Hiliarious!!! SHould we add in the fact that some refuse to hear other sides of the story during the Q&A, telling the audience they are wrong? GADS!!!
Robert – one of my fave speakers is Steve C. I don’t know if I have ever heard a speaker that isn’t BS. I’m sure there are some out there, though.
Robert: How about “Steve Crescenzo”???
I know he’s my friend, so in the interest of full disclosure, I need to mention that, but BEFORE he was my friend, I still thought he was different, helpful and – probably the most important of all – he talked to me like he actually LIVED in the same world that I do.
Specifically, when he makes fun of some idiotic aspect of corporate-world, he usually also gives me an actual real-world suggestion for how to change it or work around it that is realistic enough to allow me to actually try it without a UN-Committee, a $100K budget line, or a $5K course to learn 75 tactics.
For me, that’s the key thing – give me something I can actually DO in the REAL WORLD, recognizing my ACTUAL budget/authority/time available.
Anybody can toss out things that cost a bucket of money and/or require buy-in by 17 other departments in my organization – none of whom give a damn about MY needs, but unless the ideas can be worked in – as David notes – to the 562 other things that I HAVE to complete this week, they’re less than useless to me.
David Murray says
Yep, Crescenzo is a good example of one kind of keynote speech, but even though he’s probably the most popular speaker in the business right now, many big-conference organizers would be hesitant to make him a keynoter because the ideas he brings are practical and real-world.
That’s almost the opposite of what many of what many conference organizers want to kick off their shows: They’re going for big, mystical, out-there, out-of-the-box. The trouble is, our field is communication, and it’s hard to come up with something legitimately new and huge in a thousands-year-old art.
Off the top of my head, some great keynotes I have heard:
• Bill Lane, former speechwriter to CEO Jack Welch, kicked off a Speechwriter’s Conference one year with a half-funny, half-obnoxious, all-brilliant account of his years with Welch and what he learned along the way.
• TJ Larkin wows the shit out of every crowd he gets in front of, talking (again, with humor) about how he came to his conclusion that supervisory communication is the most important element.
• At a Ragan show some years ago, James Carville had a crowd that was predisposed to dislike him eating from (and at times crying in) the palm of his hand because he had been through the wars and had honest-to-goodness insights to share.
• And the most surefire constructive keynote address you can book—I’ve seen many of these—is a communicator at the top of his or her game, working for a company that values communication, and JAMMING OUT. The person usually acknowledges right off the bat that he or she has advantages that others don’t, and then goes on to offer inspiring examples of the possible.
Again, that’s just off the top of my head.
Keynote speakers ought not be limited to offering ideas that fit perfectly into your budget, your schedule, your culture and your management politics–it’s the listeners’ job to make that happen–but reality must be acknowledged, and when speakers are insulting us and lying to us, we ought to call them out.
David Murray says
Ooop, one more notable type of keynote that can work:
A guy named Bruce Berger, who was the head of communication at Whirlpool a dozen years ago, delivered a “communication manifesto” to communicators. It was big-picture, it was bold, it was brash and it wasn’t going to be implemented in a day or a year.
But he did it from a position of here’s what WE NEED TO DO, and the thing added value by describing what corporate communication would look like if the business world made sense.
At the time, it was galvanizing (rather than dispiriting, as so many of these talks ultimately are). A keynote address doesn’t have to be immediately practical. But it does have to be honest about what it’s asking the audience to do and think, and why.
Love it. I’ll look up the speakers that David mentioned, too.
Personally, I cannot recall any keynote that taught me much – mostly they were entertaining. A few produced a short-term euphoria that faded fast and never turned into any lasting change/insight. Especially the ones that focus on trends, predicting the future, and generalizing to a high, ‘strategic’ level.
I attended the IABC World Conference last week and got more value out of the employee comms panel session than the Cisco keynote, by far. Crescenzo led the panel, by the way. Here’s a sum up if you’re interested: http://bit.ly/pTuAp